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I-Team: FAA Waives Rule For Life Saving Equipment

MIAMI (CBS4) - Few will forget the watershed moment in US aviation history when a US Airways jet glided to a safe landing in the middle of the Hudson River in January of 2009.

Bill Elkins certainly won't. He was a passenger aboard Flight 1549, a flight that will forever be known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

"I wasn't thinking about hitting the water. I was thinking about my wife and kids," said Elkins. "Once I came to and realized I was still on the plane and it was filling up with water, to me that was more terrifying than the thought of the plane crash. Because at that point I thought I had a pretty good shot of drowning inside the airplane."

What few people know is that the Miracle on the Hudson might have been a disaster. Those who were there say many might have died or been seriously injured but for one detail most of us probably didn't know about... there were life rafts on board the airplane, allowing everyone to get out safely in the freezing waters of the Hudson River.

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger piloted that miracle flight. "I absolutely believe it made a big difference on the flight. Had we not had life rafts and only seat cushions for flotation I think it's likely we would not have had a good outcome."

What's more the Miracle on the Hudson was a flight scheduled to travel over land from New York to Charlotte.

"I think flight 1549 two-and-a-half years ago proves that water landings can result in survival of everyone on the airplane, if there are slide rafts or life rafts in addition to life vests," Sullenberger said.

As CBS4 I-Team Investigator Stephen Stock discovered, every day more than one hundred commercial airplane flights to the Caribbean may not carry the type of survival gear passengers have come to expect. That's because the FAA routinely waives the rules requiring life rafts and allows commercial aircraft to fly over the ocean without them. It's a policy that goes back decades. Even if you fly a lot you likely don't know about it.

Of the hundreds that may be flying without life rafts, the CBS4 I-Team knows that several commercial flights have actually flown over water to islands in the Caribbean without them on board.

William "Bill" McGee is an Aviation Consumer Advocate. "It does raise a concern. Absolutely."

McGee is the travel consultant for the Consumers Union based in New Haven, Connecticut.

"The idea that we would compromise the margin of safety by removing life rafts from commercial aircraft, it's quite dangerous," McGee warned.

But that is exactly what's happening.

The CBS4 I-Team discovered that the Federal Aviation Administration routinely waives the rule requiring life rafts on airplanes flying over the ocean.

Click Here To Read FAA Life Raft Statement

With the waivers, 18 different commercial airlines are allowed to fly all over the Caribbean with no life rafts on board. Although they do use seat cushions and individual life vests.

"Most domestic flights now are operated by airplanes that do not have life rafts or life vests... only seat cushions for flotation... and that's just not as good in a water landing as life rafts are, even if the temperatures are moderate. Because hypothermia in water can be an issue so quickly even water that's relatively warm," said Captain "Sully."

Experts tell us airlines don't always carry life rafts because they are costly to maintain, inspect and add extra weight to planes causing them to use more fuel.

"I think its part of a larger pattern with the FAA at times being more concerned about the economic health of the airline industry than being concerned with passengers that pay for the ticket," explained McGee.

The I-Team then compiled a database of more than 100 daily flights from Miami, New York, Dallas and Chicago that have actual daily commercial routes listed by major US airlines on their web sites to places all over the Caribbean as far away as Aruba and Curacao.

All but two of those routes use airplanes listed on the FAA's waiver list. That means they don't need to carry life rafts on board the aircraft to comply with the FAA rules.

"We do find it disturbing because the fact is that this equipment can save lives," said Veda Shook, President of the Association of Flight Attendants. The organization represents nearly 60 thousand employees at 23 airlines.

"It's a strange loophole that the equipment is required but that a request for a deviation can be made. So the Association of Flight Attendants believes that in every case where it's mandated that that equipment needs to remain onboard," Shook said.

"The blame rests with the FAA itself," Gabe Bruno told Stock.

Bruno served as an operations inspector and regional manager for the FAA for 28 years, before retiring in 2006.

"Just because the aircraft is going to ditch in the water doesn't mean that it's a fatal accident," Bruno explained.

Bruno now serves as an aviation safety consultant and heads the FAA whistleblowers alliance.

"Wouldn't it be a horrendous thing to survive the crash and then die because of the elements?" asked Bruno.

The CBS4 I-Team contacted the major US airlines to get their take on this issue.

All of them insist they fly safe and obey the FAA's rules and waivers as currently written. They wouldn't tell us specifically which flights over the Caribbean carry life rafts and which ones do not.

Click Here To Read Commercial Airlines Statements

The FAA insists these waivers don't risk the public's safety.

Meantime, retired airline pilot Captain Sully Sullenberger is pushing Congress and the FAA to require life rafts on all flights, whether they are scheduled to fly over the ocean or not.

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